Today, the European Space Agency leadership took steps toward suspending the ExoMars mission, a joint project with Russian space agency Roscosmos. It’s the latest scientific fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has forced institutions collaborating with Russian entities to reevaluate their positions.
ExoMars a two-part mission: an orbiter, launched in 2016, that studies the chemistry of the Red Planet’s atmosphere, and a Mars rover, named for scientist Rosalind Franklin and set to launch this year—or at least, it was.
The mission has been a long time coming; funding was granted 10 years ago this week, but technical delays and the covid-19 pandemic pushed the rover launch date back to fall 2022. That target was looking viable until the Russian invasion of Ukraine last month.
From the off, it was clear that ExoMars was in doubt. In a statement shortly after the invasion, the ESA said it was “fully implementing sanctions imposed on Russia by our Member States” and that “the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely.”
The agency’s most recent move codifies that unlikeliness. Meeting in Paris this week, the agency’s ruling council unanimously mandated that the ESA Director General take steps to suspend cooperation with Roscosmos and authorized a study of how to get ExoMars off the ground without Roscosmos involvement.
The ExoMars developments are just the latest scientific implications of the Russian invasion. Last week, CERN leadership stated its support for Ukraine, an associate member state of the scientific collaboration, and announced it would not begin any new collaborations with Russian institutions. In February, Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin suggested that American sanctions on Russia could cause the International Space Station to crash; that prompted retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly to enter a Twitter spat with the Russian administrator, something NASA evidently wasn’t too happy about.
In its newest statement, ESA announced that its director general would convene a meeting of the agency council in several weeks to submit proposals for how to proceed with ExoMars without Russian involvement.